Me as a Boy§

writer: russell j.t. dyer; posted: July 16, 2008; revised: April 23, 2018; readers in past month: 934

Russell Dyer as a Boy

This photograph was taken of me when I was a boy. I think I was about seven years old at the time. At that point in my life, my father had been dead four years: I still missed him and needed him, but I had adapted to the fact that he was gone. I still didn’t understand what death meant; I still didn’t realize that it was a permanent situation. I thought that my father would just be dead for a while and then one day he would be home. It wasn’t until many years later when I was on a twenty-mile road march in the Army, carrying seventy-pounds of gear which included an M-16 automatic rifle, that it would hit me. It wasn’t until that day as I lied in a cold and hard ditch with my gas mask on waiting for the all-clear to be called that I would cry as I understood that death meant that he would never return.

In this photo of me as a boy, I see uncertainty, hope, loss, and confusion in my fake smile — a smile that the studio photographer called upon, echoed by my mother behind him in the way that she often asks me to do something which should be natural at a time when I didn’t want to do it or that is made fake by her prempting me. In this forced smile I see the way that she stills asks me to do things in a way in which something as simple and pleasurable as smiling becomes drudgery brought on by the guilt giving tone of her request.

I still smile in this way when people ask me to smile for the camera, when people tell me to be happy rather than let me be happy. I still squinch at life to hide the hurt, the disappointment. Rarely do I take a photograph in which my smile is genuine. The photograph at the top of the page was taken by my daughter on a train. She knows not to ask me to smile. She lets me be who I am, the way I want to be. That’s her unique style, her relationship with me. The result is a softer smile and a more content demeanor.

In the midst of the Catholic mass, around the time of the blessing of the bread and wine, the priest will say, we wait in joyful hope of the coming of the Lord. Look at the picture of me as a boy — look past the artificial smile — and you’ll see that I was waiting in hope, not joyful hope, but in hope of the coming of my father. Look at the picture of me today and you’ll see that I still wait for him or someone like him — the him that’s in my mind and that’s missing from my life. The difference between these two pictures is that I’m skiddish looking and timid in the boyhood picture, while I’m resigned to the waiting in the current day one. I’m still waiting, though. I’m still timid — the real me is, anyway. I can put on an act and I can be quite mature and independent at times, with certain people, in certain situations. Nevertheless, the real me is lost. The real me is still as a boy.